A leading Scottish salmon producer hired a private investigator to snoop on a key critic of the fish farming industry, The Ferret can reveal.
Internal industry documents show that a former chief executive of The Scottish Salmon Company (TSSC), requested an ‘intelligence report’ on the fish farming campaigner, Corin Smith, and another unnamed individual in November 2018.
Included in the ‘intelligence report’ are analyses of Smith’s movements and behaviour, monitoring of his social media accounts, and pictures of his house. Searches were conducted of his financial and legal history, as well as for keywords and terms relevant to Smith on the Dark Web.
The Ferret’s revelations have provoked outraged responses from green activists and politicians. One environmental group said that the “Big Brother levels of corporate snooping” employed against Smith by TSSC showed it was unable to “win the argument” on its environmental record “by fair means”.
The report recommends surveillance of Smith and the other individual- whose name is redacted- for 48 hours before and after fish farming events.
It also suggests a “deep dive financial investigation” on the other individual, and “ongoing monitoring of crowdfunding and social media posts to pre-empt any activities or protests planned” by Smith and the other campaigner.
TSSC- which was bought by Faroese company Bakkafrost last year- said that the ‘intelligence report’ related to “the practices of previous senior management”, which it “no longer engages in”.
Corin Smith, though, accused TSSC of “using its obscene wealth to bully and intimidate” locals and those criticising its impact on the marine environment. He said it had employed the “same old tired tactics used by big tobacco and other industries with plenty to hide” to try and silence him.
The document was released after a Subject Access Request (SAR) lodged to the company by Smith and is dated to 28 November 2018.
Individuals can use SARs to request that companies and other organisations release personal information held about them. The Scottish salmon farming industry combined held over 2000 pages of emails and other correspondence about Smith.
Alongside the ‘intelligence report’, the SAR responses show attempts by the wider industry to undermine Smith’s credentials as an expert on fish farming. Smith is the founder of Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots (ISSF), which “seeks to prevent the expansion of, and ultimately eradicate, open-cage salmon farming on the West coast of Scotland”.
Salmon farming is an important industry for the Scottish economy, with the value of export sales alone totalling £450 million.
But salmon kept in farmed conditions are at greater risk from sea-lice infestations and have a higher mortality rate than wild fish. Additionally, research shows sewage and chemical waste from fish farms is damaging to the marine environment, negatively affects water quality, and contributes to harmful algal blooms.
One email released in the SARs shows the trade body which represents the Scottish salmon farming sector, now known as Salmon Scotland, described as having “worked hard to discredit Mr Smith as a credible source”.
It is unclear whether the remarks, which were provided to Smith by TSSC, were made by a Salmon Scotland employee or an individual from another firm. Both the sender and recipient of the email are redacted.
Hamish Macdonell, director of strategic engagement at Salmon Scotland, said the organisation’s tactics were “understandable and justifiable” given that Smith’s work had “endangered the health and welfare of fish and personnel”.
Macdonell continued that Salmon Scotland staff were correct to raise Smith’s “irresponsible tactics with any broadcaster trying to find out if Mr Smith is an expert source on salmon farming”.
As part of his campaigning work, Smith swims out to and flies drones over commercial fish farms to film the conditions that salmon are kept in. The industry argues that in doing this he disregards “stringent health, safety and biosecurity rules”.
The Ferret has previously published video footage, filmed by Smith in September 2018, of scarred, frayed and lice-infested fish at TSSC’s Vacasay farm in Loch Roag.
Another salmon producer, Norwegian giant Mowi, hired the major PR firm, Finsbury, to help it address allegations about it made in a May 2019 BBC Panorama documentary.The programme- entitled ‘Salmon Farming Exposed’- featured Smith as a contributor.
In emails between the firms, Finsbury suggested painting Smith as “a paid up advocate” of environmental groups, rather than “a wildlife photographer with an interest in salmon farming”, as he was described by the BBC.
Mowi’s communications director, Ian Roberts, said that its response to the 2019 documentary, and its employment of Finsbury, were designed to ensure that reporting about the company was “factual and accurate.”
Finsbury told The Ferret that it “conducts its work with the highest levels of propriety”, and was hired by Mowi to “address allegations from critics featured in the Panorama programme that they felt were damaging and unfair”.
Meanwhile, Smith has shown The Ferret photographs of a GPS tracker allegedly found on the underside of his car in June 2021.
Police Scotland confirmed it had received a report from Smith about the tracking device and the TSSC ‘intelligence report’ and that “enquiries remain ongoing”. There is no evidence that anyone from the fish farming industry planted the tracking device.
‘Serious questions’ for salmon farming
Commenting on the findings, Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said that it was “entirely inappropriate for private companies to carry out surveillance on an individual like this”.
Ruskell continued: “If PR firms were hired to discredit him it would suggest that Mr Smith’s campaigning has had an impact on the salmon farming debate.
“There are now serious questions for these firms about this evidence, and why they felt this was a better investment than minimising the environmental impact from their business.”
The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael MP, told The Ferret that although fish farming is important for “Scotland’s most economically fragile island communities” the findings were “serious and needed to be treated as such”.
“Companies operating in this sector have a responsibility to behave in a way that does not damage its reputation. It is essential that a full investigation is held to get to the bottom of the matter,” Carmichael added.
Greenpeace UK’s oceans consultant, Willie Mackenzie, argued that instead of “monitoring activists” the fish farming sector should “take a closer look at the devastating impact it’s having on local habitats and marine life.”
“This Big Brother level of corporate snooping on an environmental campaigner is frankly disturbing.
“Not being able to win the argument by fair means, a part of the fish farming industry seems to be resorting to these shady tactics to undermine its opponents,” Mackenzie said.
Corin Smith branded the industry’s tactics as “pathetic” and recommended that “anyone who has ever said anything about salmon farms online submit SARs to the major salmon farming companies”.
He added: “It’s rich old men, who don’t live here, using their obscene wealth to bully and intimidate locals to ensure they can continue stripping us of our natural assets and keep for themselves the wealth that should be in our children’s future.”
A spokesperson for The Scottish Salmon Company (TSSC) said: “The gathering of these documents relates to the practices of previous senior management and were archived several years ago; at the person’s request all information about them was immediately deleted from our systems. As a business we do not engage in such practices.”
This story was published in tandem with The Herald. The picture caption was amended at 08.15 on 27 November 2021.